Humility in Mission

Johnna Hayward Muniz is a Covenant Missionary in France.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” Philippians 2:3-5

Recently, we took a trip to the touristy part of Lyon and decided to stop at one of the famous ice cream stores. They have ninety-six flavors, and it was our first time there. My husband and I were excited to give our girls (five and two years old) a treat.

I went up to the counter and asked a few questions about the flavors in French, but it immediately felt like something was wrong. By the looks on the workers’ faces, it seemed as if they were impatient and annoyed by my questions. Although my French is not native or perhaps even fluent, I have worked for several years in French and can therefore usually manage something like ordering ice cream. In this case, I could tell there were a lot of dynamics at play. Originally offended and humiliated, I pressed on and ordered our ice cream, managing to remain polite through the exchange. Walking away, I was bruised. It is hard enough to speak a different language, but when the people you are talking to look at you like you’re dumb or annoying, it can hurt.

It was as I spoke with my husband about the interaction and tried to put myself in their shoes that I was able to find some possible reasons for the treatment. These workers are accustomed to seeing tourists every day who come and practice their three phrases of French during their two-week vacation to Europe, getting quickly confused when the worker responds in French. I imagine they’ve given up on people that look and sound like foreigners. They just want someone to come in, order quickly, and get out of the way so more customers can be served. Who knows how many foreigners had come in speaking broken French, holding up the line, trying all sorts of flavors for free (before they made the rule against this), and making things challenging for the staff? Even though I come from a land where “the customer is always right,” that rule is not always practiced in other countries.

Living cross-culturally provides an infinite number of opportunities to practice humility. Most people agree that living in another country makes you feel like a child again. There are so many things that the people native to the country take for granted, so it can feel like perpetually being on the outside, trying to figure things out. We say the wrong things, with a funny accent, in the wrong context, on a
near-daily basis. Even our English becomes a bit strange as we live outside our native land, making it a humbling experience to return as well.  I’ve found Philippians 2:3-5 to be especially helpful to me when living overseas. Although it applies to how we should live no matter where we are, it seems particularly important when we are in someone else’s territory, trying to live and love like Jesus. 

1) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

What a challenge when our very motives for moving overseas can sometimes be selfish. We want to learn a new language, discover a new place, “bring Jesus” to those who don’t know Him, and “save the lost.” Historically, Christians have not done a very good job at living by this verse. This is a good reminder that we are not superior to others. If we truly love people and want them to know peace and joy in Christ, we will not come with a know-it-all attitude or a sense of superiority. Instead, we will respect others and accept them as they are. We will be quick to listen, refrain from judging, looking for where Jesus is already at work, and considering how we can join him. If we have learned anything about love, we know it is given without condition and definitely without looking down on others. As Father Cavanagh says in the movie Rudy, “I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts: There is a God… and I’m not Him.” 

2) Value others above yourself. 

Having lived four years in Japan, this part of the verse makes me think of Japanese culture. There are words like enryo, which means to abstain from something out of politeness and consideration for others, and omotenashi. The latter is often translated as “hospitality” and is the quality of being thoughtful and considerate of others so that you can anticipate their needs and adjust your actions accordingly. When an entire society is focused on thinking of others above themselves, it creates a very peaceful and considerate community. What can other cultures learn from this? What kind of an impact would it have if we all tried to put others first, whether it be in marriage, friendship, at work, on the highway, or at a restaurant? When living cross-culturally, especially when not in a country like Japan where this is practiced, it is obvious when someone goes out of their way for someone else or puts someone else first. I’m always amazed how a little extra cake or leftover soup given to a neighbor makes an incredible impact and is a magnificent breeding ground for friendship, honesty, and even conversations of faith. Let’s take time to think intentionally of others in our circles and reach out to them or do something that puts them before our own needs.

3) Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…  who made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant. (Phil 2:7)

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean becoming a doormat or a co-dependent, yes-person! When we ask Christ to transform our minds on a daily basis, like in Romans 12, surrendering our thoughts, wills, desires, agendas, goals, and big plans for ourselves or others, our mindset can somehow become aligned with the Servant of All. This means doing a regular heart check to see if our motives are more about serving ourselves or the God of all the nations, and it includes a daily laying down of ourselves and our needs. In cross-cultural living, this might mean biting my tongue when I feel as if the workers at an ice cream store are looking down on me. It might mean finding creative ways of turning the tables so that people who could become my enemies instead become people I want to actively seek out to serve and encourage. 

Hopefully, over time, this way of living will become more natural to me in France, and I will be able to love those around me less selfishly and with less inhibition. 

May Psalm 139:23-24 be our prayer as we look for ways to live out true humility in our context, wherever we are.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

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